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The influence of the olfactory memory over our spatiotemporal perception



The geometry of the environment is static, yet constantly flooded by various dynamic atmospheres; thus, it transmits a range of signals which are all possibilities for the individual to make sense of the space. Nonetheless, we perceive the world as we are willing to understand it and we call upon our memory —which encodes our experiences, our encounters, and other associations that we live in different places— unceasingly to act, to move. The reality of the environment is therefore shaped by the unstable ground of our memory which follows various temporal rhythms. Drawing upon our memory, the multiple fluxes of smells that create a mobile and intangible topography alter our perception of the spatiotemporal structure of the environment. In other words, we navigate the environment by passing through different past and expected places that our intellect envisions in our present in reaction to the smells we encounter. These scenes, that I call timescapes (paysages temporels), are part of the theater of our olfactory memory.
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the influence of the olfactory memory over our
spatiotemporal perception
A presentation given at the British Psychological Society annual conference of the Consciousness and
Experiential Psychology section, held on 2- 3 September 2016 at University of Bristol (UK). The theme of
the conference was about the phenomenology and psychology of the temporal experience. Many thanks
to the Cognitive Sciences Institute and the Faculté des sciences humaines de l’Université du Québec à
Montréal for having awarded me a grant to help defray travel expenses.
The visual part of this presentation is here:
The fundamental notions related to the disciplines of architecture and environmental
design are: space, spatial relationships and changes in space. and although
spatiotemporal perception is an influential player in modulating our reality, this is a
parameter that is rarely taken into account when developing architectural projects and
urban planning.
The geometry of the environment is static, yet constantly flooded by various dynamic
atmospheres; thus, it transmits a range of signals which are all possibilities for the
individual to make sense of the space. Nonetheless, we perceive the world as we are
willing to understand it and we call upon our memory which encodes our
experiences, our encounters, and other associations that we live in different places
unceasingly to act, to move. The reality of the environment is therefore shaped by the
unstable ground of our memory which follows various temporal rhythms.
Drawing upon our memory, the multiple fluxes of smells that create a mobile and
intangible topography alter our perception of the spatiotemporal structure of the
environment. In other words, we navigate the environment by passing through
different past and expected places that our intellect envisions in our present in
reaction to the smells we encounter. These scenes, that I call timescapes (paysages
temporels), are part of the theater of our olfactory memory.
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Smells seem to offer great opportunities to restructure the reality of the individual;
however, the olfactory dimension is very rarely taken into account by architects and
urban designers. When they do, it is generally to avoid and/or control potentially
unpleasant emanations. Nevertheless, smells have the potential to become a
strategic tool to reconfigurate the experience we have of a place because the
mobilization of memory in urban planning is particularly significant to people.
My desire to address this issue, and to understand to what extent the smellscape
influences our spatiotemporal perception of the environment, led me to conduct a field
study in an area of Montreal (QC, Canada). I would like to share here with you my
results as well as my last reflections on the subject.
1. The environment is dynamically articulated by a sensory cohesion that transmits
different types of signals. And each of these signals are a possibility to make sense of
the milieu in which we find ourselves.
2. Sensation is a neurological process. Sensory input is a physical interaction: cells in
our nose have receptor molecules that combine with molecules from the environment
to initiate electrical impulses, for example.
We are constantly exposed to more stimuli than we can manage. In searching to
translate a range of signals received by our sensory organs, our brain choses to not
take certain ones into account and to link the others into an intelligible story in order to
make sense of the moment. Reality is thus a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully
censored before it reaches us.1
We link a collection of percepts, spatiotemporal forms, individual and collective
representations to places. With our senses, we seize what impulsively interests our
body in an instinctive (Bergson, 1938) and automatic (Fodor, 1983) way. We never
perceive the world as it is but as we are ready to understand it; and we interpret each
information according to our expectations and motivations (Merleau-Ponty, 1945).
Consequently, what we retain in our memory depends on who we are our past
experiences, our knowledge, and our needs (Schacter, 1999).
3. I would like to underline here that it is understood that any significant event that we
perceive in the environment is archived in our memory without any particular
temporal order, and the resulting mental representations can then be linked to one
or more perspectives, or even to a logical narrative in an another occasion (Tversky,
2000). Therefore, our mental representations not only allow us to liberate ourselves
from both the temporal and spatial constraints of the present to relive the past but
equally project us into the future (Tulving et al., 2010). In other words, allowing a form
of circulation in the temporal thickness of the environment, our memory grants a
continuous journey in a subjective time.
1 David Eagleman in New Yorker, April 25, 2011.
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4. A fully functional memory is divided into different systems that interact with one
Représentation des différents types de mémoire. Dessiné par Jane Plailly (2005) suivant les données présentées par
les Instituts de Recherche en Santé du Canada (IRSC). Reproduit avec l'aimable autorisation de Jane Plailly.
Retrieval of information encoded in long-term memory is traditionally divided into two
categories: recall and recognition. Recall involves actively reconstructing the
information, whereas recognition only requires a decision as to whether one thing
among others has been encountered before. Recall is more difficult, because it
requires the activation of all the neurons involved in the memory in question. In
contrast, in recognition, even if a part of an object initially activates only a part of the
neural network concerned, that may then suffice to activate the entire network.
Unlike recognition, which only requires that a feeling of familiarity is seized, a memory
involves a reminder that results from an evocation. However, a memory is not a true
copy of a real-life event, nor an activated image of a past event. Forms of
reconstruction of the past are indeed variables (Van der Maren, 2010). For example,
if we ask someone to remember a specific event he can either:
- remove certain items that are less emotionally charged in favor of events that
seem more important;
- reorganize the running of the event to make it a smart story;
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- distribute differently the role of the protagonists that was present;
- redraw the event entirely in a way that it could have plausibly happened.
A memory can thus be a completely made up or a simply distorted reality. Perhaps
because another person suggests it strongly (Loftus, 1997), or simply because the
subject has a strong sense of belonging to a group (Olick, 1999); for example, if a
group of individuals live a particular event collectively, a person who will not have
been there can nevertheless make this collective memory his by building up memory
images from what the others report of the event.
5. Mental images do not stay fixed like the reflection of an object, which would persist in
our conscioussness, but participate in an act of structuring, in a mental elaboration of
a scheme (Denis, 1979). Abstract psychic compositions, these mental images are
thus, as Merleau-Ponty calls them, perceptive constructions. Between perception,
which is the representation of a sensory data, and image, which is the memory of the
perception, there is a difference in degree and intensity, but also a difference in
nature. Consequently, memory plays an important role in the formation of reality.
La mémoire ne se confond ni avec la sensation ni avec la conception
intellectuelle ; mais elle est ou la possession ou la modification de l’une
des deux, avec la condition d’un temps écoulé. Il n’y a pas de mémoire du
moment présent dans le moment même, ainsi qu’on vient de le dire ; il n’y
a que sensation pour le présent, espérance pour l’avenir, et mémoire pour
le passé. Ainsi la mémoire est toujours accompagnée de la notion du
temps. 2
6. The landscape is similar to a souvenir in the sense that it is a place of memory.
Composed of images and sensations resulting from the experience of places, the
landscape is not part of the environment as such but is the aesthetic result of a purely
intellectual recognition (Rogers, 1997). Built of mnemonics structures, the smellscape
is therefore the theatrum memoriæ of the significant moments we live with smells.
7. Contrary to our other sensory organs, the signals picked up by the olfactory system
are not immediately analyzed by the mind. The collected information is first sent
directly to the hippocampus (Vanderwolf, 2001; Eichenbaum et al., 1991), a brain
structure that plays a central role in memory and spatial navigation. Researchers in
the field of olfaction agree that an odor molecule follows the following path in our
1. processing of the olfactory sensation in a response in the form of a sensory
neuron in the nasal mucosa;
2. formation of what we can call an image in the glomerulus of the olfactory bulb.
This molecular picture is equivalent to the image produced in the brain's visual
association areas;
2 ARISTOTE. Traité de la mémoire et de la réminiscence (De memoria et reminiscentia), trad. J.-B. Saint-
Hilaire (1847), chapitre 1, § 3, 449a.
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3. the image passes then in the olfactory bulb via the olfactory cortex to be saved by
our memory system.
8. So if the smellscape is a structured universe of multiple mnemonic landscapes in
constant change that blur our spatiotemporal definition of the present moment, to
what extent do smells influence our perception?
9. As part of a study on the power of smells to shape our spatiotemporal perception of
the environment, I tried to find clues to that question.
Based on a socio-anthropological approach that aims to access human logic, my
method of inquiry took into account not only the reality of the individual but also the
characteristics of the environment, which allowed me to grasp the perception and the
memory of the participants. Because if the path of an individual is a discourse, the
events met on the way are rhetorical figures; therefore, in letting the individual
express the territory as s/he lives it, as s/he interprets it, we could be immersed in
his/her universe of references.
To seize the sensory environment as perceived by the individual, it is necessary to
confront the experience of the latter with the physical signals related to the built
environment. Therefore, for the collection of data in situ, I used a method that allows
real-time storytelling of a journey, the parcours commentés (commented course)
which is a method developed by the Centre de recherche sur l'espace sonore et
l'environnement urbain de l'École d'architecture in Grenoble (FR)that I combined
with the cognitive maps tool. The combination of these methodologies allowed a good
triangulation of the data I believe.
10. To get as complete a range as possible of the olfactive topography of the route as
the fact is the data may vary greatly between the well-defined seasons we have in
Quebec the survey took place during three seasons: winter, spring, summer (2012).
Thus, each participant (on a total of twelve) made her/his route under different
weather conditions, temperatures and hours.
11. Taking approximately thirty-five minutes to complete on foot, the route, drawn at the
confluence of two different districts of Montréal Plateau-Mont-Royal and
Outremont allowed participants to meet with a variety of smells as well as various
types of urban spaces. Thus, I was able to harvest a diverse range of expressions
from them.
12. The significant quantity of oral data collected brought me to stage graphically the
perception of the participant on an aerial map. In transcribing each of the
commentaries at the place where it was expressed, I was able to confront the reality
of the individual with the reality of the space. Like a universe of narratives, every route
takes thus the shape of a large format poster that shows the intimate relationship that
is built between the individual and the space s/he perceives.
13. The superposition of all maps revealed the topography of a collective smellscape. The
narrative mapping procedure established to analyse the data was a very efficient and
dynamic tool for my investigation.
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The Olfactory Memory Theatre. Cartographic narrative: excerpt of two routes. One
expressed in French by a Francophone participant; the other in English by a Hispanic
14. In real-world settings, what is present in the environment produces signals that
simultaneously stimulate multiple sensory modalities, which creates interconnections
among various sensory areas of our brain. Perception of olfactory ambiances is
undeniably influenced by other sensory signals present at the same time, I was,
however, surprised to see how strong a hold sight has on it. A close relation is
established between sight and the sense of smell, sometimes going as far as to
remodel the smellscape. The ascendancy of sight is perhaps explained by the fact
that smells are linked to a series of mental images, these being a collection of
experiences that we have lived and associated to a smell. And as we learn from a
young age to take in the world principally by sight, it is therefore natural for us to refer
to mental images to make sense of what we perceive in the environment.
15. Olfactory fluxes play as much as a role in the impromptu appearance of memories in
the individual as they do in the imagining of possible scenes, and in inspiring future
actions. Therefore, our perception of the environment can be under the influence of
an anticipation, as well as dotted with imaginary scenes. Here are some conclusions
that I have drawn from my investigation:
A smell can trigger the apparition of an imaginary smell that will add a sequence to
the mental representations and/or the story that is attached to the smell that is
actually present. For example, one of the participants said during the route : "It's funny
how the sidewalks collect everybody's waste. It seems like someone spilled a beer",
he assumes that someone had spilled a beer on the sidewalk because he believes
that he smells beer while passing in front of a bar (though I did not smell the odor at
that time). This scene, however briefly stated by the participant, could have developed
into a more complex story in his mind and/or even made him want to stop to have a
beer somewhere if he had not had to continue the route.
A perceived smell can also trigger in our mind a phantom smell which is not present in
the environment but for some reason is linked to the mental representation of the odor
that is actually there. For example, a participant said: "It smells of the afternoon! when
children… come home after school. They stop at the corner store, to get some candy.
I smell the chewing-gum!" (Bouchard, 2013:112).
Furthermore, some of the participants, who were recognizing a certain smell but were
not able to link it to its visual source, doubted the identification of what they were
perceiving. Example: "There, there was many smells but… I don't know what. Ah! Oil!
There must be a car… a car in a garage. / Translated from: « là il y avait pleins
d'odeurs mais… je ne sais pas quoi. Ah! de l'huile. Il doit y avoir une auto… une auto
dans un garage. » Or they were convincing themselves that the smell they were
perceiving was emitted from the most likely source they were seeing, example:
walking in a residential zone where there were many trees and bushes along the
sidewalk, a participant said: "Aaah! Lilacs! I don't know where they are but it's very
strong. No… maybe it's not lilacs after all, but it's a flower scent though. There aren't
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any lilacs! But maybe there were some… or maybe the white bushes over there?
Though it's a very strong scent, very present." / Translated from: « aaah! des lilas. Je
ne sais pas où ils sont mais c'est très fort. Non... ce n'est peut-être pas du lilas
finalement, mais enfin, c'est une odeur de fleurs. Il n'y a pas un lilas! Peut-être qu'il y
en a eu… ou l'arbuste blanc là-bas peut-être ? Pourtant c'est très fort comme odeur,
très présent. »
16. CONCLUSION The incessant flux of smells surrounding us exert a significant
influence on our definition of space because, as each smell draws upon our memory,
it allows a form of circulation in the temporal thickness of the environment. By
maintaining close ties with imagination and memory, smells form a mobile and
changing timescape that is intimate to us. In other words, the fragrant harmony that
we perceive at every moment allows us to evolve, by conscious or distracted mental
projection, between the virtual planes of countless places we have encoded in our
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Full-text available
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